Are corporations people?

Corporations Are Not PeopleThe legal definition of a corporation in the UK is:

a body of persons authorised by law to act as one person, and having rights and liabilities distinct from the individuals who are forming the corporation.

A corporation can own property, do business, pays taxes – well, sometimes – be sued, sue individuals and other corporations, and though it can’t be born or die, a corporation usually has a definite beginning and can come to a definite end. A corporation doesn’t have a passport: it may be registered in just one country, but it can exist in many.

But no matter how many legal rights and powers a corporation may acquire, there are things it cannot do: it cannot vote in most democratic electionsthough the richer the corporation is, the more it is likely to get its way regardless of democracy; it cannot have sex or experience orgasm or know love or laughter or tears; and it has neither soul nor conscience – from a religious viewpoint, a corporation is not a person at all.

Or so I always thought.

But apparently, in the US at least, the Catholic Church has ruled that corporations have souls and consciences, and therefore rights of freedom of religion that ought not to be violated.

The American legal definition of a corporation is similar to the UK’s definition. A corporation in the US is an independent legal person, created, organised, and – should that time come – dissolved according to the laws of the state in which it is registered. Each state requires articles of incorporation that document the corporation’s creation and the corporation’s management of internal affairs. Nowhere in the legal definition of a corporation does it explain where in this process the corporation becomes ensouled.

From the US edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in answer to the question “What is a soul?”:

The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection

One must presume, therefore, that the Catholic Church in the US regards corporations as literally human beings, and at some point in the incorporation process, a soul is created for the new corporation by God.

How do we know this?

The US has never had a universal national health service. But with the recent changes to the law, there has been an improvement in the standards for provision of healthcare insurance, which Americans usually get via their employers:

The Department of Health and Human Services decided to include contraception as part of comprehensive preventive health care for women — and thus a service employers must cover under the Affordable Care Act — based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM looked at the outcomes associated with getting pregnant unintentionally and found connections to delayed prenatal care, premature delivery, low birth weight, maternal depression, and family violence. Getting pregnant without intending to also can prevent women from getting a degree or a job they aspire to. Birth control, in other words, helps women in wide-ranging ways. It’s pretty simple, really: Women are better off when they get to choose if and when to have babies. When birth control is part of the health insurance package, as opposed to an expense women foot on their own, their health literally benefits.

The Catholic Church ruled in 1968, via Pope Paul VI, that contraception, abortion, and sterilisation, are all “absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children” – contraception being defined as:

any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation

There is probably no encyclical ever sent out from Rome that has been so systematically and so universally ignored. 98% of sexually-active Catholic women in the US use contraception. Throughout the world, Catholics mostly disagree with Pope Paul VI’s ruling on contraception. As the recently-published poll found, it is not merely that Catholics use contraception – (Catholic women are more likely to have abortions than Protestant women but Catholics still tend to agree that having an abortion is wrong) but that Catholics are in silent, but quite universal, disagreement with their faith hierarchy that using contraception is sinful at all. (This is understandable, given even a lay understanding of how contraception works.)

Catholic teaching acknowledges that a person’s conscience is a valid moral guide:

Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right…

There exist corporations in the US which were created and organised to run organisations such as Catholic schools, relief services, and hospitals. The corporation is the legal entity for financial, legal, insurance, and accountancy purposes: the paycheques the employees receive, and the benefits they get as part of their employment, come from the corporation: the money accrued from fees or donations goes to the corporation’s bank accounts.

Writing in the Telegraph in February 2012 (nine months before President Obama won re-election), Dr Tim Stanley (a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England) asserts that not only are the services provided by the organisations Catholic, but the corporations themselves are Catholic.

If the corporation is a mere legal entity, not recognised by the Catholic Church as a person in religion, then the issue of the corporation providing health insurance benefits that allow individual employees to access contraception – or abortion, or sterilisation – should cause no Catholic any moral difficulty at all. It is up to the individual Catholic to follow their conscience: it is basic freedom of religion, protected by the US Constitution, that they should be able to do so.

But according to Tim Stanley: “Obama’s war on the Catholic Church isn’t just insensitive – it’s un-American”.

This is because of the provision that no corporation is exempted from providing all of the comprehensive preventive health care for women – including contraception. Tim Stanley calls this “Obama’s attempt to force Catholic employees to provide contraception coverage in employee healthcare plans” and claimed that “Obama took 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008. He will struggle to do that well again”.

(In fact, division of the Catholic vote in the US in November 2012 followed the Democratic-Republican Hispanic-White division that most recent elections have shown as Republicans get more and more bellicose on “illegal immigrants”: 75% of Hispanic Catholics and 40% of White Catholics voted for Obama in 2012. There is no evidence that Obama’s determination to have contraception included in the Affordable Care Act affected the Catholic vote at all.)

Even Tim Stanley in February 2012 knew that Catholics don’t get that exercised over contraceptive use:

the vast majority of Catholic women use some form of contraception and very few of them are concerned about its distribution. My Los Angeles parish is increasingly the cultural norm within the Western Catholic communion: sex and sexuality don’t boil the blood in the way that they used to.


The answer is that Obama’s diktat violates the American principle of freedom of conscience. It’s one thing to ask Catholic organisations to provide contraception coverage. It’s another thing to order them to do it.

No Catholic organisation can use contraception. A corporation has less need for condoms than the Pope. Contraception, like love, laughter, tears, and religion, is a need experienced by human beings, not legal entities that are neither born nor die.

US Conference of Catholic BishopsBut Tim Stanley is right: according to the teaching of the Catholic Church in the US, a corporation – even one that has no connection with providing religious services – is an ensouled entity with a conscience. On 28th January 2014, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops filed an amicus curiae brief to support the corporations Hobby Lobby (which is a privately-owned retail chain “selling arts and crafts supplies, fabrics, baskets, silk flowers, needlework, picture framing, party supplies, furniture, and related items”, incorporated in Oklahoma in August 1972) and Conestoga Wood Specialities (which is a manufacturer of wood doors and components for kitchen, bath and furniture, founded in Pennsylvania in 1964) in their fight for religious freedom.

Conestoga Wood SpecialitiesThe USC of Catholic Bishops wrote to the court:

The notion that for-profit entities cannot exercise religion rests on an unduly narrow view of religious liberty.

That religious freedom for corporations would place a substantial burden on the religious freedom of mortal individuals is perhaps not important from the perspective of the legal entity that is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCBB is a civil nonprofit organisation founded in 1966 in Washington D.C., whose purpose is to support the ministry of bishops.

But after all, if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialities have souls, so too must the USCCB: and it is understandable that potentially-immortal legal entities that do not die, or fall ill, or suffer pain or weakness, or love, laugh, or weep, should care more for the souls, consciences, and religious liberties of each other than for the welfare and the consciences of the brief mortals of blood and bone whose lives vanish into mortality like tears in the rain.

Hobby Lobby

Update, 30th June 2014

Today (30th June 2014) the Supreme Court of the US ruled that certain for-profit corporations have “religious rights” which trump their employees right to freedom of conscience or the right to access basic healthcare. Corporations with at least 50% of stock held by five or fewer people, such as family-owned businesses, in which the owners have clear religious beliefs, get to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

In dissent Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court had “ventured into a minefield,” adding it would disadvantage those employees “who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.”


Filed under American, Human Rights, Women

2 responses to “Are corporations people?

  1. Reblogged this on Law, Politics and Possibly Cake and commented:
    Excellent post considering that corporations in Ireland can use Defamation Law since the 2009 Act.

  2. It’s not just the Catholic bishops – it builds on a case where the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation’s right to free speech meant that the law could not restrict its (or anyone else’s) political donations.

    As you state, nowhere can it be indicated how or when a corporation (as distinct from its individual human members) acquires a soul – or indeed any other properties of a person, other than those necessary for the purposes for which people created the organisation.

    So it is indeed all nonsense, but it raises questions about the angels-on-a-mentality of the US legal system as much as it does about the bishops’ jesuitically opportunistic use of the original judgment.

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